Laura Craig McNellis was born in Nashville, Tennessee, as the youngest of four sisters. McNellis’s mental retardation became apparent early in her life, but despite some social pressure to institutionalize her, the artist was raised and mostly schooled at home. McNellis greatly enjoyed painting from a very young age and did so regularly, using tempera on blank newsprint as her medium—for several years, her father brought home stacks of blank newsprint to keep up with the volume of her production. She still works only on this surface and has rejected any offers of canvas or better quality paper.
Because McNellis is non-literate and her speech understood only by family members, her paintings have become an extraordinary means of personal expression. Often a painting portrays an episode from her day and sometimes a series of works will develop from a particular event that fascinated her. Her acute powers of observation enable her to depict eloquently the people, objects, and events she encounters. Her art makes it clear that the artist sees a different, though in no way diminished, world.
McNellis has always painted late at night, frequently after everyone else is asleep. She employs bold, rapid brushstrokes and the wall near her desk is splattered with the byproducts of this technique. She often draws the outline first with a color felt marker or a felt-tip pen, then makes the works come alive using inexpensive watercolor sets and tempera paint.
When a painting is complete, McNellis writes large letters across the bottom margin—sometimes cutting out the interiors of the “Os.” These cut-out portions are occasionally part of the central picture. She generally trims each of the corners of a painting, but is careful to preserve a fragment of the brightly-rayed yellow sun that almost invariably appears in the upper-right corner. Another recurring image in McNellis’s work is the small fluffy clouds that line the top edge of each painting. When a piece is complete, McNellis folds it into quarters and stores it. She is quick about archiving, and has put many paintings away while still wet; McNellis appears to be less concerned about the fate of a finished picture than with the planning of her next.